2016 College Football Preview

I live in South Carolina, where it is not “football weather” just yet.  In fact, we’re about to get drenched by Hurricane Hermine, a reminder that it is still officially summer.

But while the cool air and colorful leaves will be here soon enough, college football itself is back tonight.

Actually, the season began last weekend with a pair of “kickoff games,” as California beat Hawaii in the Sydney College Cup in Australia, and North Dakota State avoided an upset bid from Charleston Southern in the FCS Kickoff.

This weekend will feature a full slate of games, including South Carolina at Vanderbilt and Appalachian State at #9 Tennessee tonight.  While there are a few games where a traditional power plays an FCS lightweight, this weekend is not your typical opening weekend, with four games between two ranked teams, as well as some other strong matchups.

As everyone tries to do this time of year, here is what I think will happen this college football season.  Last year, I only picked one of the four College Football Playoff teams correctly, and my eighth ranked team in the preseason finished 1-7 in conference play, so I would not recommend taking these picks to the casino.

Conference Predictions

Records indicate 2016 projections, and include projected conference championship games

ACC

Championship Game: Clemson over North Carolina

Atlantic Division:
1. Clemson (12-1, 7-1)
2. Florida State (11-1, 7-1)
3. Louisville (9-3, 6-2)
4. NC State (7-5, 4-4)
5. Boston College (6-6, 2-6)
6. Wake Forest (5-7, 2-6)
7. Syracuse (2-10, 0-8)

The matchup between Clemson and Florida State has decided this division’s winner for seven straight years, and this year the Atlantic will once again likely come down to the October 29 meeting in Tallahassee.  That said, Louisville could be an upset or two away from making themselves division contenders, and they have the talent to hang with the Tigers and Seminoles.  Beyond that, there is a wide gap back to NC State, who begins life without quarterback Jacoby Brissett.  Boston College is coming off a winless season in conference play, but has the defense to contend for a bowl spot, while Wake Forest is still young but has its most depth under third-year coach Dave Clawson, and Syracuse begins a complete rebuild with new coach Dino Babers.

Coastal Division:
1. North Carolina (9-4, 6-2)
2. Miami (8-4, 5-3)
3. Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3)
4. Virginia Tech (6-6, 4-4)
5. Georgia Tech (6-6, 3-5)
6. Duke (6-6, 3-5)
7. Virginia (5-7, 2-6)

Everything finally came together for North Carolina last year, resulting in a division title and a near-upset of Clemson in the ACC title game.  While QB Marquise Williams is gone, the Tar Heels still have the talent to repeat as division champs.  Chasers include Miami, as former Georgia coach Mark Richt tries to return “The U” to its strong football tradition and has a strong quarterback in Brad Kaaya.  Pittsburgh improved in their first year under Pat Narduzzi, and should be as good with an experienced roster, while Virginia Tech is also experienced, but is led by someone other than Frank Beamer for the first time in 30 seasons (Justin Fuente).  Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson may be on the hot seat after last year’s busted season, and Duke is coming off their first bowl win since 1960, but has already lost quarterback Thomas Sirk for the season, and Virginia should be improved under new coach Bronco Mendenhall, and could claw its way to a bowl game with some breaks.

Big Ten

Championship Game: Michigan over Iowa

East Division:
1. Michigan (12-1, 8-1)
2. Michigan State (9-3, 7-2)
3. Ohio State (8-4, 6-3)
4. Penn State (6-6, 4-5)
5. Indiana (5-7, 3-6)
6. Maryland (5-7, 2-7)
7. Rutgers (4-8, 2-7)

Year two of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan could potentially end in a conference title (and College Football Playoff berth), with 15 returning starters and an inspired team and fan base.  Michigan State and Ohio State both still have plenty of talent, but only have 11 and 8 returning starters, respectively, from teams that each only lost once in the Big Ten last year.  Penn State is talented and experienced, but is a notch below the top three in this division.  Indiana reached a bowl last year, and has a shot at doing it again if the cards fall right, while Maryland and Rutgers are rebuilding with first year coaches and fill out the bottom portion of the division.

West Division:
1. Iowa (10-3, 7-2)
2. Nebraska (9-3, 6-3)
3. Wisconsin (8-4, 6-3)
4. Northwestern (6-6, 4-5)
5. Minnesota (6-6, 3-6)
6. Illinois (5-7, 3-6)
7. Purdue (3-9, 1-8)

Iowa is somewhat under the radar, just as they were a year ago when they were one play away from the College Football Playoff, and they return their leaders from last year and host pivotal games with Nebraska and Wisconsin.  Nebraska had five last-second/overtime losses last year, and is primed (and due) for a much better 2016, while Wisconsin’s ground attack should make them a factor in the West as well.  Northwestern is experienced up front, but a lack of skill position experience will make another 10-win season tough, while Minnesota is inexperienced on defense and working in a new system on offense.  Illinois hired former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith to rebuild their program, but it will be difficult for him to work miracles overnight with a young team, while Purdue has been a step behind the competition for the better part of a decade.

Big 12

(the Big 12 has no championship game)

1. Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1)
2. Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2)
3. Baylor (9-3, 6-3)
4. West Virginia (7-5, 5-4)
5. TCU (8-4, 5-4)
6. Texas (7-5, 5-4)
7. Texas Tech (6-6, 4-5)
8. Kansas State (5-7, 3-6)
9. Iowa State (4-8, 2-7)
10. Kansas (2-10, 0-9)

Oklahoma returns many key players from their College Football Playoff team from a year ago, meaning that will be their goal again in 2016, although in-state rival Oklahoma State may have something to say about that, with a talented bunch, including the son of Barry Sanders, feeling like they have unfinished business after a rough ending to 2015.  Baylor became a perennial Big 12 contender under Art Briles, but now will try to retain that status under interim coach Jim Grobe.  West Virginia should be stout on offense, but it’s unclear if they can get big stops with a very young defense, while a young TCU team begins life without QB Trevone Boykin with Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kenny Hill.  Coach Charlie Strong is still looking for his first winning season at Texas, and may need one to retain his job, but has the talent to do so.  Texas Tech will score points, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but the question, as it always seems to be in Lubbock, is if they can play defense.  Kansas State has the opposite problem, as they are decent defensively but are looking for a quarterback, while Iowa State and Kansas both face uphill battles in the middle of big rebuilds.

Pac 12

Championship Game:  Stanford over USC

North Division:
1. Stanford (11-2, 7-2)
2. Washington (9-3, 6-3)
3. Oregon (8-4, 6-3)
4. Washington State (8-4, 5-4)
5. California (5-7, 3-6)
6. Oregon State (2-10, 1-8)

With Oregon’s mild dropoff last year, Stanford is now the North’s standard-bearer, and while the Cardinal missed the College Football Playoff last year, they dominated the Rose Bowl finished third in the polls, and this year Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey returns.  Washington is primed to turn a corner in coach Chris Petersen’s third year, looking to avenge several close losses last year with a strong roster.  Oregon’s offense has seven returning starters and a transfer quarterback, but is another team with a questionable defense, as former Michigan coach Brady Hoke takes over as defensive coordinator.  Washington State is one of the most experienced teams in the conference, and won nine games last year, while California moves on from quarterback Jared Goff, the top pick in the NFL draft, and returns just 10 starters.  Oregon State did not win a conference game in Gary Andersen’s first season last year, and 2016 doesn’t look much better.

South Division:
1. USC (9-4, 7-2)
2. UCLA (9-3, 7-2)
3. Utah (8-4, 5-4)
4. Arizona (6-6, 3-6)
5. Colorado (5-7, 3-6)
6. Arizona State (5-7, 2-7)

The South is a sneaky-good division, and after USC won it last year, they removed the interim tag from coach Clay Helton.  This year the Trojans return 10 starters on offense, although the potential division-deciding game is on the road at UCLA, which counters USC’s experienced offense with their own experienced defense, as well as strong sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen.  Utah should be in nearly every game with a strong defense, and is experienced in the trenches, making them a solid sleeper.  Arizona was 7-6 a year ago, but has most of their skill position players back.  While Colorado was just 1-8 in league play last year, they only lost four starters, so with experience the Buffaloes should be better.  Arizona State is going in the opposite direction, with very little experience to guide them through a tough schedule.

SEC

Championship Game:  Alabama over Tennessee

West Division:
1. Alabama (12-1, 7-1)
2. LSU (11-1, 7-1)
3. Ole Miss (9-3, 6-2)
4. Arkansas (7-5, 4-4)
5. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5)
6. Auburn (5-7, 2-6)
7. Texas A&M (5-7, 2-6)

The nation’s best division has three teams in my preseason top 10, and has produced the SEC’s champion for seven straight seasons.  All Alabama has done is win four national championships in the last seven years, and has also won four SEC titles in that span.  LSU has two national titles of their own under current coach Les Miles, and an experienced team that includes explosive running back Leonard Fournette.  Ole Miss is also very strong, and would be favored in most divisions, but faces an uphill climb in this one.  Arkansas has been a late-season bloomer the last two years, a trend that could continue with a young quarterback and experienced defense.  Mississippi State will have a hard time replacing quarterback Dak Prescott, while Auburn and especially Texas A&M give a football connotation to the word dysfunction.

East Division:
1. Tennessee (11-2, 7-1)
2. Georgia (10-2, 6-2)
3. Florida (7-5, 4-4)
4. Vanderbilt (6-6, 3-5)
5. Kentucky (5-7, 2-6)
6. South Carolina (5-7, 2-6)
7. Missouri (4-8, 1-7)

Tennessee, who won five division titles from 1997 to 2007, returns 19 starters from a team that suffered four close losses early last year, rallied for a nine-win season, and now seems ready to contend for a division title and more.  Georgia will get a fresh start with new coach Kirby Smart, but still has the talent in place to contend, led by running back Nick Chubb.  Florida won the East last year, and while their defense should still be strong, the question remains how much they can score.  Vanderbilt could turn the corner in year three under Derek Mason, as they now have some experience on offense to match their strong and underrated defense.  Nine offensive starters return at Kentucky under a new offensive coordinator, although a tough road slate could hurt.  Will Muschamp has big shoes to fill at South Carolina with a young roster, while another new coach at Missouri, Barry Odom, inherits a mess and a young roster.

Notable Independent/”Group of Five” Teams

Independent:
Notre Dame (9-3)
BYU (7-5)
American Athletic Conference:
Houston (12-1, 8-0)
Mountain West Conference:
Boise State (12-1, 8-0)

Notre Dame and BYU have tough schedules as always, but also have talented rosters which will enable them to be very competitive, especially in South Bend.  Houston possesses one of the best up-and-coming coaches in Tom Herman and a very talented dual-threat quarterback in Greg Ward Jr., and are the favorite to be the representative for the “Group of Five” conferences in the New Year’s Six bowl games.  Another contender for that bid is Boise State, a perennially competitive non-Power Five team who enters 2016 with lots of experience.

Preseason Power Rankings

Records listed for 2016 are projected

1. Alabama
2015: 14-1, 7-1 SEC, College Football Playoff National Champion, SEC Champion
2016: 12-1, 7-1 SEC
AP Rank: 1st
They’ve won four titles in seven years, and appear to have reloaded this year like they have throughout the Saban era.  Picking them is sticking to the status quo, but until anyone proves they can hang with the Tide, no one will top them consistently in preseason polls.  One thing that could stop the Tide is three tough road tests:  Sept. 17 at Ole Miss (who has beat Alabama the last two seasons), Oct. 15 at Tennessee, and Nov. 5 at LSU.

2. Clemson
2015: 14-1, 8-0 ACC, College Football Playoff Runner-Up, ACC Champion
2016: 12-1, 7-1 ACC
AP: 2nd
After falling just short in January, the majority of skill players are back for the Tigers, including Deshaun Watson, who was third in 2015 Heisman voting, although there is a minor question regarding the team’s defensive experience.  Clemson has improved nearly every year under Dabo Swinney, although the only way to improve on last year’s campaign would be to be hoisting the trophy on Jan. 9 in Tampa.

3. Oklahoma
2015: 11-2, 8-1 Big 12, College Football Playoff Semifinalist, Big 12 Champion
2016: 11-1, 8-1 Big 12
AP: 3rd
The Sooners have a lot of experience back from last year’s team that reached the College Football Playoff with an impressive stretch run.  This includes quarterback Baker Mayfield, who finished fourth in Heisman voting last year, although he’s now without two of last year’s starting receivers.  The Sooners should be favored in every game, making the big question whether or not they execute each week.

4. Florida State
2015: 10-3, 6-2 ACC
2016: 11-1, 7-1 ACC
AP: 4th
By Florida State’s lofty standards, last year’s 10-3 season was a disappointment.  However, with tons of experience, especially on offense, the Seminoles can turn the lessons learned last year into a big season, with electric running back Dalvin Cook leading the way.  Fortunately for the ‘Noles, their annual showdown with Clemson will be in Tallahassee this year (Oct. 29).

5. LSU
2015: 9-3, 5-3 SEC
2016: 11-1, 7-1 SEC
AP: 5th
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) favors LSU in every game, including the Nov. 5 showdown with Alabama, as running back Leonard Fournette returns, and looks to deliver a full season of highlight-reel plays this time around after a disappointing finish last year nearly (somehow) cost Les Miles his job.  Fournette is not the only veteran, as the Tigers have 18 starters returning.

6. Michigan
2015: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten
2016: 12-1, 8-1 Big Ten
AP: 7th
After Jim Harbaugh led Michigan to a five-win improvement in his first year, expectations are through the roof this season for one of college football’s blue blood programs.  It won’t be easy, with games against Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State all on the road, but the Wolverines have the talent, the experience, and the leadership to contend for a playoff spot.

7. Tennessee
2015: 9-4, 5-3 SEC
2016: 11-2, 7-1 SEC
AP: 9th
Another big-name program looking to return to the big time is Tennessee.  The Volunteers have 19 starters back from a team that, with four close losses last year, was only a handful of plays away from an undefeated season.  Now they are the heavy favorites in the SEC East, and will even get rival Alabama at home as Butch Jones looks for a program defining win and season.

8. Stanford
2015: 12-2, 8-1 Pac 12, Pac 12 Champion
2016: 11-2, 7-2 Pac 12
AP: 8th
Stanford is not as experienced as the other teams in the top 10 in these rankings, but they do have one key veteran–running back and 2015 Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey–who will be a nightmare for opposing defenses.  David Shaw hasn’t always had experienced teams at Stanford, but he always has his teams ready to play, and tough to beat.

9. Oklahoma State
2015: 10-3, 7-2 Big 12
2016: 10-2, 7-2 Big 12
AP: 21st
The Cowboys have 17 starters back, and are a strong sleeper pick in the Big 12.  Their experience includes Mason Rudolph, who has quietly become a very solid quarterback.  Last year’s team started 10-0 before losing their last three games, so this year’s edition should be eager to finish the job and could enter “Bedlam” at Oklahoma on Dec. 3 with a playoff shot.

10. Ole Miss
2015: 10-3, 6-2 SEC
2016: 9-3, 6-2 SEC
AP: 11th
The bad news for Ole Miss is that not many people are giving them a good chance to win the SEC West, with Alabama and LSU also residing in the tough division.  The good news for the Rebels is that quarterback Chad Kelly is back under center, and is capable of leading them through another solid season.  Alabama, who the Rebels have beat in back-to-back seasons, comes to Oxford on Sept. 17, while LSU hosts the Rebels on Oct. 22.

11. Notre Dame
2015: 10-3 (Independent)
2016: 9-3
AP: 10th
Experience and the schedule are not necessarily on the side of Notre Dame, but the Irish always have talent, and this year is no different.  The only game that FPI does not favor the Irish in is November 26 at USC, although there are still plenty of tests on the radar (at Texas, Michigan State, Stanford, etc.)

12. Houston
2015: 13-1, 7-1 AAC, AAC Champion
2016: 12-1, 8-0 AAC
AP: 15th
The leader of the pack from the non-Power Five schools, Houston is led by dynamic dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and a rising star at head coach, Tom Herman.  The Cougars face two tough tests (Sept. 3 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 17 vs. Louisville), but should be ultra-competitive even against that tough competition.

13. Iowa
2015: 12-2, 8-0 Big Ten, Big Ten West Division Champion
2016: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten
AP: 17th
Iowa’s strength last year was its defense, and eight starters return to that unit for Kirk Ferentz’s club.  Wisconsin (Oct. 22), Michigan (Nov. 12), and Nebraska (Nov. 25) all come to Iowa City this season.

14. North Carolina
2015: 11-3, 8-0 ACC, ACC Coastal Division Champion
2016: 9-4, 6-2 ACC
AP: 22nd
After their first ACC Coastal Division title in 2015, the Tar Heels are back for more.  After their Atlanta opener on September 3 against Georgia, North Carolina only faces one other team ranked in the preseason (Oct. 1 at Florida State).

15. USC
2015: 8-6, 6-3 Pac 12, Pac 12 South Division Champion
2016: 9-4, 7-2 Pac 12
AP: 20th
Critics of the Trojans will point out a first-year starter at quarterback (Max Browne), but every other starter on offense returns from last year’s team that overcame the midseason firing of Steve Sarkisian to win the Pac 12 South Division title.  Winning conference games will, naturally, be important if the Trojans want a Pac 12 title, but to contend nationally they’ll have to win two big non-conference tests (Sept. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame).

16. Louisville
2015: 8-5, 5-3 ACC
2016: 9-3, 6-2 ACC
AP: 19th
The Cardinals are in the unfortunate spot of residing in the same division as Clemson and Florida State, but coach Bobby Petrino always has some tricks up his sleeve, particularly offensively, where nine starters return.  The Cardinals host Florida State on Sept. 17, and travel to Clemson on Oct. 1.

17. Georgia
2015: 10-3, 5-3 SEC
2016: 10-2, 6-2 SEC
AP: 18th
On one hand, you never know what to expect with a first year coach, as former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart takes over in Athens.  On the other hand, the Bulldogs have a weapon at running back in Nick Chubb, get Tennessee at home (Oct. 1), and have avoided Alabama and LSU in cross-division scheduling.  After starting their season in Atlanta, the Bulldogs have a decent chance of returning there for the SEC Championship Game.

18. Baylor
2015: 10-3, 6-3 Big 12
2016: 9-3, 6-3 Big 12
AP: 23rd
When former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe took the interim head coaching job at Baylor after Art Briles’ firing, he instantly inherited the most talented roster he has ever coached, including quarterback Seth Russell and running back Shock Linwood.  Even with that talent, if Baylor can win the Big 12 after such a tumultuous offseason, Grobe (a Coach of the Year winner in two different conferences) would have done his best coaching job to date.

19. Michigan State
2015: 12-2, 7-1 Big Ten, College Football Playoff Semifinalist, Big Ten Champion
2016: 9-3, 7-2 Big Ten
AP: 12th
The Spartans reached the College Football Playoff last year after a thrilling Big Ten title game victory over Iowa, but now they turn the page with a very young team.  There is still plenty of talent on the roster, but things still won’t run quite as smoothly for Mark Dantonio as they have in recent years (double-digit wins in five of the last six seasons).

20. Nebraska
2015: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten
2016: 9-3, 6-3 Big Ten
AP: not ranked
Last year, Lincoln, Neb. was the heartbreak capital of the sports world, as the Cornhuskers lost six one-possession games, including five at the last second or in overtime.  15 starters return, and can now use the lessons learned in that tough 2015 campaign.  A litmus test game will come in non-conference play on Sept. 17, when Oregon comes to Lincoln.

21. UCLA
2015: 8-5, 5-4 Pac 12
2016: 9-3, 7-2 Pac 12
AP: 16th
Defensive injuries hurt UCLA’s Pac 12 chances last year, but this year nine defensive starters return, along with very talented sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen.  A November 19 game against USC could determine the Pac 12 South, and the Bruins are fortunate enough to host that contest.

22. Washington
2015: 7-6, 4-5 Pac 12
2016: 9-3, 6-3 Pac 12
AP: 14th
When Chris Petersen had experienced teams at Boise State, he turned them into top 10 teams, and he will now try to do the same in his third year at Washington.  The Huskies only allowed 18.8 PPG last year, and now the offense should supplement that, making the Huskies a trendy pick in the Pac 12 North.  Washington’s two toughest games (Sept. 30 vs. Stanford, Nov. 12 vs. USC) are both at home.

23. Ohio State
2015: 12-1, 7-1 Big Ten
2016: 8-4, 6-3 Big Ten
AP: 6th
Maybe I’m wrong, but the AP Poll ranking the Buckeyes sixth looks to me like a clear case of the writers who vote looking at the name on the front of the jersey, and not the names on the back.  This team, with the exception of quarterback J.T. Barrett, looks nothing like the successful teams of Urban Meyer’s first four years in Columbus (50-4).  There’s a lot of talent, but they are not yet ready to contend for a national title.  Regardless of record, the big one will be Nov. 26 when Michigan is in town.

24. Oregon
2015: 9-4, 7-2 Pac 12
2016: 8-4, 6-3 Pac 12
AP: 24th
After last year’s quarterback experiment with FCS transfer Vernon Adams Jr. worked (the offense wasn’t the reason for the four losses), the Ducks turn to Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop.  Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke is in to take over a defense that allowed 37.5 PPG last year; how quickly his philosophies work may be the difference between a repeat of last season and a conference title-contending team.

25. Boise State
2015: 9-4, 5-3 MWC, Mountain West Mountain Division Champion
2016: 12-1, 8-0 MWC
AP: not ranked
As mentioned before, when Chris Petersen was in Boise, his experienced teams put together top 10-caliber seasons.  Now Petersen’s successor, Bryan Harsin, will try to do the same, with an easy schedule that the Broncos could very easily navigate all the way to the New Year’s Six bowls.

Honorable Mention:  Utah (AP: not ranked), Wisconsin (NR), TCU (13th), Miami (NR), Florida (25th), Washington State (NR), Arkansas (NR)

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One thought on “2016 College Football Preview

  1. Pingback: Twitter Picks for College Football Week One | Stiles On Sports

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